The Barrett Browning letter of February 15, 1852 is remarkable. But first some background. In 1838 Miss Barrett had been sent to Torquay, on the coast, for her health. She was 32 years old. She was accompanied by at least one of her sisters and her eldest and closest brother, Edward, who all called Bro. She was attached to Bro in a way we perhaps do not know or understand. I am not aware of any extant primary record of interaction between them but subsequent events show that she was deeply involved with him. After a time, being the eldest son, his father sent for him to return to London. Miss Barrett appealed to her father to allow Bro to stay, which he was permitted to do although Mr. Barrett let it be known that he was not happy about it. On a summer day in 1840 Bro went out in a small boat with several male friends and never returned. Their bodies were found up the coast several days later. Miss Barrett had an emotional reaction to this death that we would probably consider clinical depression. Her guilt over his death was tied to the fact that she had insisted that he stay with her rather than return to London as their father had wanted. Her description of her reaction when she wrote to Mary Russell Mitford about it was, "That was a very near escape from madness, absolute hopeless madness". Based on her own description she was not able to physically function. She was ultimately brought home to London in a private carriage.
This event in her life, we will find, had a decided effect on her relationship with Browning. But today we will see the effect it had on her relationship with Miss Mitford, her long term literary correspondent and friend. For Miss Mitford has written and published a biographical sketch of the poetess that has revealed the darkest secret and perhaps greatest shame of her life. From Paris, Mrs. Browning has written to admonish her friend:
"My very dear friend, let me begin what I have to say by recognising you as the most generous and affectionate of friends. I never could mistake the least of your intentions; you were always, from first to last, kind and tenderly indulgent to me—always exaggerating what was good in me, always forgetting what was faulty and weak—keeping me by force of affection in a higher place than I could aspire to by force of vanity; loving me always, in fact. Now let me tell you the truth. It will prove how hard it is for the tenderest friends to help paining one another, since you have pained me. See what a deep wound I must have in me, to be pained by the touch of such a hand. Oh, I am morbid, I very well know. But the truth is that I have been miserably upset by your book, and that if I had had the least imagination of your intending to touch upon certain biographical details in relation to me, I would have conjured you by your love to me and by my love to you, to forbear it altogether. You cannot understand; no, you cannot understand with all your wide sympathy (perhaps, because you are not morbid, and I am), the sort of susceptibility I have upon one subject. I have lived heart to heart (for instance) with my husband these five years: I have never yet spoken out, in a whisper even, what is in me; never yet could find heart or breath; never yet could bear to hear a word of reference from his lips. And now those dreadful words are going the round of the newspapers, to be verified here, commented on there, gossiped about everywhere; and I, for my part, am frightened to look at a paper as a child in the dark—as unreasonably, you will say—but what then? what drives us mad is our unreason."
"....Robert set about procuring the 'Athenæum' in question. He tells me (and that I perfectly believe) that, for the facts to be given at all, they could not possibly be given with greater delicacy; oh, and I will add for myself, that for them to be related by anyone during my life, I would rather have you to relate them than another. But why should they be related during my life? There was no need, no need. To show my nervous susceptibility in the length and breadth of it to you, I could not (when it came to the point) bear to read the passage extracted in the 'Athenæum,' notwithstanding my natural anxiety to see exactly what was done. I could not bear to do it. I made Robert read it aloud—with omissions—so that I know all your kindness. I feel it deeply; through tears of pain I feel it; and if, as I dare say you will, you think me very very foolish, do not on that account think me ungrateful. Ungrateful I never can be to you, my much loved and kindest friend."
"...Yes; I do understand in my heart all your kindness. Yes, I do believe that on some points I am full of disease; and this has exposed me several times to shocks of pain in the ordinary intercourse of the world, which for bystanders were hard, I dare say, to make out. Once at the Baths of Lucca I was literally nearly struck down to the ground by a single word said in all kindness by a friend whom I had not seen for ten years. The blue sky reeled over me, and I caught at something, not to fall. Well, there is no use dwelling on this subject. I understand your affectionateness and tender consideration, I repeat, and thank you; and love you, which is better. Now, let us talk of reasonable things."
Such an extraordinary letter. She obviously feels betrayed and yet she does not want to hurt or lose her friend. As is usual for her she takes all the blame on herself. She is the 'morbid' one, she is the one who is 'full of desease'. Another woman would have cut Miss Mitford and ended the friendship for such a betrayal. Perhaps Mrs. Browning did over react, but her letter of reproach was remarkable for it's tenderness, as she apologized for being hurt.
As if to prove that their relationship would go on as before Mrs. Browning ends the letter with exciting news. She was going to meet George Sand!
"Meanwhile, we have at last sent our letter (Mazzini's) to George Sand, accompanied with a little note signed by both of us, though written by me, as seemed right, being the woman. We half despaired in doing this, for it is most difficult, it appears, to get at her, she having taken vows against seeing strangers in consequence of various annoyances and persecutions in and out of print, which it's the mere instinct of a woman to avoid. I can understand it perfectly. Also, she is in Paris for only a few days, and under a new name, to escape from the plague of her notoriety. People said to us: 'She will never see you; you have no chance, I am afraid.' But we determined to try. At last I pricked Robert up to the leap, for he was really inclined to sit in his chair and be proud a little. 'No,' said I, 'you shan't be proud, and I won't be proud, and we will see her. I won't die, if I can help it, without seeing George Sand.' So we gave our letter to a friend who was to give it to a friend, who was to place it in her hands, her abode being a mystery and the name she used unknown.....And we are going to-morrow; I, rather at the risk of my life. But I shall roll myself up head and all in a thick shawl, and we shall go in a close carriage...."
Mrs. Browning was excited! She was going to see her hero! And she shared it with an old friend who had hurt her to the core.